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Could new rules bury citizen paleontology?

Published July 30, 2013 10:19 am

Fossils • Forest Service wants to limit "casual collecting" to 25 pounds a year.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Some kids grow up collecting baseball cards.

Some coins and others video games.

Glade Gunther spent his family time as a youngster collecting fossils.

Not at a museum play pit. Not in a backyard sandbox but on remote public lands, often in uncomfortable conditions.

Gunther has unearthed ossified remains of ammonites, trilobites and other ancient invertebrates that ended up in museums, research facilities and classrooms across the world. Now he and other amateur collectors say their ability to contribute to knowledge of ancient life is jeopardized by the way public-land agencies are interpreting the 2009 Paleontological Resources Preservation Act.

The U.S. Forest Service is gathering public comments until Monday on proposed regulations that limit "casual collecting." The regs cover most fossils from dinosaurs to leaves found on federal lands. But it is restrictions on invertebrates, those spineless creatures that proliferated in Cambrian seas, that have amateurs crying foul.

The Forest Service rules would limit collectors' annual take to 25 pounds, or about what fits in a one-gallon bucket. In a calendar year, they could collect no more than five specimens of any one type of invertebrate. A fossil hunter could exhaust that limit before lunch, critics say.

"You can't get people interested in science if they can't go out and pick things up ... It is going to make a whole bunch of law-abiding citizens, myself included, criminals," Gunther said. "Bureaucrats sitting in a room who never collected a fossil in their lives write these rules."

Those bureaucrats are paleontologists Scott Foss, who is helping draft the Bureau of Land Management's fossil rules, and Mike Fracasso, of the Forest Service. Both have lots of field experience.

Foss agreed that amateurs in general and the Gunthers in particular have advanced invertebrate paleontology, but federal law mandates the agencies to "actively manage" fossil resources on public lands.

"That means they have to partner with us to continue. And we hope they do continue," said Foss, BLM's chief Utah paleontologist, who recently moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as senior national paleontologist.

"Amateurs have done an enormous contribution to the science, a lot more than the agency has done. There is not an intention to stop that."

The 2009 law requires the agencies to coordinate their regs and the BLM's are due out for public comment soon. Other federal land agencies, namely National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service, do not allow collecting without a permit.

Fracasso was not available last week, and the Forest Service could not provide anyone else to comment.

As has been the case for years, collecting fossils of dinosaurs and other vertebrates, as well as rare invertebrates would still require a permit. But the proposed regs spell out new standards for these fossils' retention and use.

"The principal investigator has to be a qualified paleontologist and what gets collected has to go to an approved repository, i.e. a museum," Foss said, speaking for BLM. "They will have to either collect with restrictions or they will have to have a research plan and they can collect more, but they don't get to keep it."

The 2009 law says those collecting without a permit are limited to a "reasonable amount" of common fossils that can be gathered in ways that leave "negligible disturbance." The Forest Service's proposed rules define these terms as 25 pounds a year and "little or no change to the land surface."

Such limits would impede scientific discovery because few amateurs have the institutional backing to get a permit that would allow serious gathering, critics say.

"It basically ends what I have been doing for 55 years," said paleontologist Jim Jenks, of West Jordan, coauthor on more than two-dozen research papers on invertebrate fossils. "I would say a significant portion of the new material discovered and described is done by amateurs who then share the information with professionals."

Dick Robison, a professor emeritus at University of Kansas, backed Jenks and Gunther.

"I don't know where the 25 pounds came from. That thing is absolutely bizarre. It seems like government bureaucracy run amok," said Robison, an expert in invertebrate paleontology who taught at the University of Utah until 1974.

"I worked with the Gunthers since I arrived in Utah in mid-1960s. They have been phenomenal. These rules will put an end to that cooperation. It is completely unrealistic."

Led by the late Lloyd Gunther, Glade's grandfather who was known as the Trilobite King, the family has uncovered thousands of trilobites over four generations. Many specimens were unknown to science before they gave them to researchers, who, in turn, named new species after the family.

In 1984 the Gunthers were awarded the inaugural "Strimple Award," honoring achievement in paleontology by amateurs.

According to Foss, the 25-pound standard is modeled on long-standing rules for collecting petrified wood, but that limit is per day, not per year.

Gunther said a 25-pound daily limit would be acceptable, but he is more concerned about other restrictions.

"The real problem is five specimens a year. You can't pick up a piece of fossiliferous rock and not have more than five specimens on it. I have broken the law by picking up a rock," Gunther said. "The other issue is you can't use real tools. You can use a hammer and a chisel, but you can't dig a hole because that exceeds 'negligible disturbance.' What the heck is negligible disturbance?"

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Pitch for new rules on fossil collecting

To comply with the 2009 Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, the U.S. Forest Service proposes limiting amateur fossil collectors to 25 pounds a year and no more than five specimens of any one type of invertebrate. The agency is accepting public comment until Monday. Email comments to mfracasso@fs.fed.us. The BLM will release its proposed rules soon.